Contractors have bad days, too

KATHY FLAXMAN
From Friday's Globe and Mail

A client once e-mailed builder Michael DeJong to say, "Mike, whenever I ask for more, the price goes up. Why is that?" The customer "couldn't have been reading what she wrote," the head of Burlington-based Michael DeJong Homes says, laughing at the memory.

The story is an example of the some times difficult customer behaviour contractors can face. Homeowners often tell horrific tales of construction delays, renovation costs that went through the roof, or mistakes that were made. But contractors — who are at times misunderstood, maligned or even mistreated — have their stories, too, many of them much more troublesome than the one above.

"Being a contractor is all about managing expectations," Mr. DeJong says. "It's an emotional roller coaster. Each project is like a little baby — you are nurturing it along. I've seen crying women, and husbands and wives playing off one another."

Gerry Mason of Toronto-based New World Kitchens has his own set of stories. "I saw a woman actually whimper because she wanted touch latches on her doors," he recalls. "There were tears. We had already installed handles and hardware. People will follow our installers around and question every screw hole and screw," he continues. "Overnight, they paper the kitchen with yellow sticky notes, and they can get abusive, shouting and carrying on. We are proud of our work and we want to give our clients the most beautiful kitchens — this type of behaviour just makes it all more painful for everyone."

Mr. DeJong and Mr. Mason are long-time professionals whose days start early and end late, and they have a passion for homes and creative building. Like most contractors, they share an objective: a successful project in which they can take pride, and a customer they can add to a long list of references and friends.

A case in point is Peter Kellner of Kellner Fine Homes in Toronto. On display in his office are awards, photos of jobs, and a library of architectural and design volumes alongside the requisite product guides. His website includes customer testimonials, including one from multimillionaire businessman Peter Munk and his wife, Melanie. But like many contractors, Mr. Kellner has endured abuse, experiences that he tries to look upon later with a certain amount of amusement.



Gerry Mason, a contractor with New World Kitchens: 'People will follow our installers around and question every screw hole and screw.' (Kevin van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

"In this business, we have to be part therapist, understanding what motivates people and what gets them upset. If they're yelling, it may be partly because they are angry at us, but it may also be something else going on in their lives," he says.

Duelling spouses? How about duelling designers? "Clients where she has one designer and he has another are 'fun,' " Mr. Kellner says.

"It might be a case of an interior designer and an architect, and we might build something only to be told by the other designer to rip it out. It's horrible. Both think they are the boss.

"In one case, the wife — a new wife — presented us with a book — kind of an Architectural Digest — and told us that this was her home in New York, and [that] that was what was to be built. Not at all what we had been contracted to do."

Tripping through this minefield is tricky but doable, except in special cases. "One client was almost a sociopath," Mr. Kellner says. "He really could not come to terms with the money that his wife was spending on the home, and kept on insisting he had paid for things when he had not. After hundreds of change orders and altercations, we had to go to court."

Then there's the issue of payment. Contractors, like everyone who works, want to be remunerated. Mr. DeJong spent several weeks this year trying to deal with a customer who didn't want to pay. "From mid-January to early March, I barely slept," he says. "This person just didn't want to pay. I don't know what the problem was; we just didn't click.

"I wish there was a way we could do one of those 'test-your-personality' quizzes before we sign a contract. In this case I did a lot of extra work. I even finished a room that wasn't in the contract. But there was this, 'Oh no, I don't have to pay for that' attitude. There seems to be a lack of respect for trades, a kind of thinking that any schmuck can pick up a hammer."

Could a test be devised to check the compatibility of clients and contractors?

If there was such a test, one of contractor Meredyth Hilton's customers might have been interested. The woman kept what she called a "book of bad feelings," and wanted to share it with Ms. Hilton, who owns the Toronto-based landscape design/build company Artistic Gardens along with her husband Brad. "She sat me down at her kitchen table and had me read her stories every day," she says. "They were mostly about what her neighbours had done."

At another project, "we had a couple in the middle of a marriage breakup who had screaming fights," Ms. Hilton recalls. "She would cry, 'that's it, I'm leaving,' and run to her bedroom and start packing. I would be in the bedroom, too, putting her clothes back in the closets."

But an even more serious problem is that "in a lot of cases, by the time people get to landscaping their homes, they haven't got enough money or patience left," she says.

"The landscaper gets the dirty end of the stick because the client already feels like they've been bled dry. What some people think is fair is very different from what other people think is fair."

The meaning of fair varies a lot depending on which side of the "under construction" fence you're on. For homeowners, making changes and adding items is all about trying to get exactly what they want and feel entitled to. A contractor may find it makes his job impossible.

Rob Harkin of Toronto-based Harkin and Associates is quick to point out that he has a dream clientele. But there was one customer . . . a woman, who made more changes than the National Ballet during The Nutcracker.

"We moved a TV power plug four times," Mr. Harkin remembers. "We would put in the plug, plaster and tape then move the plug, and then have to move it again. And plaster and tape again. The same thing with light switches.

"Even though I made it clear everything was to go through me, I would arrive on the job and things like cabinetry would be changed without my knowledge. What people do not realize about changes is that they affect everything else on a job."

Brad Hilton of Artistic Gardens adds: "Someone may want to 'just add one tree.' But I might have an irrigation guy and a lighting guy and bunch of other things lined up, and they will all be affected. That one tree might add a week to the job."

Five years or so after the fact, construction stories tend to be funny. Others are funny any time. Tim Taylor of Tim Taylor Renovations recalls one client, a larger contractor, who was under stress on the work front and at home because of a crumbling marriage.

"This guy was always having to rush to get building supplies because he would buy short," Mr. Taylor explains. "It would be 5:30 and he would be taking off in a cloud of dust to get a few feet of siding. As his personal life took a turn for the worse, he started to take tranquilizers.

At one point, discussing the project, he kept walking backward. The excavation had just been completed and he stepped right into the hole. He couldn't get out by himself either."

Bad day at the office. Fortunately, both he and Mr. Taylor lived to do other projects.

"I've learned, after 28 years in the business, to blank out the disasters so that I can just move ahead every day," he says.